The Wizard World Comic Con comes to New Orleans this weekend, and the young girls in the crowd are there in part because DC sent many of its heroes to high school.
At one end of the DC Extended Universe lie the movies, a dark, heavy, Zack Snyder-influenced place defined by desaturated colors and humorless remakes of classic rock songs. Since 2009’s Watchmen, Snyder has translated comics to the movie screen with a very literal hand, treating Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Flash as godlike creatures, then giving the films an epic look and style appropriate for god war. Wonder Woman escaped the shroud of gloom, and its title character is central to a less angsty corner of DC’s world.
DC Super Hero Girls recasts the DC world as high school, where teenaged Wonder Woman, Batgirl, and Supergirl and many other heroes learn to utilize their powers and fight evil. At Super Hero High, good and evil battles are often scaled down to clique tensions. Characters fight crime and injustice, but they’re also exploring relationships with friends and family, juggling the expectations of others and themselves, and negotiating the challenges teenagers face as they work to understand who they are. The DC Super Hero Girls world is, not surprisingly, a much lighter world, one aimed at girls from 6 to 12.
Artist Agnes Garbowska draws the current DC Super Hero Girls: Spaced Out mini-series, and until recently she was scheduled to appear at the Wizard World New Orleans Comic Con this weekend. Unfortunately, she had to cancel, but Jason Momoa, Aquaman in the recent Justice League, will represent the DC Extended Universe at the Comic Con.
Spaced Out focuses on new Green Lantern Jessica Cruz as she struggles to understand why the Green Lantern ring selected a seemingly ordinary teenaged girl and gave her the power to make her imagination reality, and how she employs that kind of power. The story is a superhero space adventure as she travels to the Green Lantern home planet of Oa, but it’s also about a young woman dealing with rapid, major changes, and her anxiety that she won’t be good enough. Garbowska makes sure her art helps to tell that story. “She leans forward, she slouches a little, she doesn’t always stand upright,” Garbowska says. “You can tell that [Cruz] has that uncomfortable element as she’s trying to figure out what she’s doing. She’s surrounded by Supergirl and Star Stapphire, these girls who already know what they’re doing.
“You have to start understanding the characters because they’re all very different personalities. The challenge is making sure that they read as different personalities.”
DC Super Hero Girls started in 2015, and the primary writer from the start has been Shea Fontana, who became involved when representatives of DC and toy maker Mattel invited her to a meeting on the project. As far she knows, the project was always envisioned as one that would involve toys as well as comics and cartoons. “It was definitely a multi-dimensional plan,” she says. “ I think just about anything in kids TV that you look at is going to have a big licensing, marketing plan behind it.”
The companies knew they wanted to set the series in high school, and they knew they wanted Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Supergirl at the heart of the project since they’re the three biggest female characters DC has. Batman and Superman were specifically left out “because they have plenty of their own stuff,” Fontana says playfully, but other than that, she had almost free rein to create something female-centric, diverse and fun. There are a handful of male characters including Teen Titans Beast Boy and Cyborg, but the emphasis is on female characters, and to increase their numbers and Super Hero High’s inclusiveness, Fontana rejuvenated some minor characters including Katana and Teen Titan Bumblebee. She also converted villains Star Sapphire, Lady Shiva, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn to heroes. Harley’s personality wasn’t entirely sanitized for DC Super Hero Girls, but instead of being psychotic, she’s more chaotic good and occasionally values sleep more than responding to an early morning Superhero Alert.
Suicide Squad’s Amanda Waller is the principal, and adult heroes Wildcat and Red Tornado show up as faculty members. “In the original pitch, I wanted Lobo to be the vice principal of the school,” she says, but that was the only choice she made that got push-back. “We ended up going with Gorilla Grodd, which is funnier, to see Gorilla Grodd in a blazer and bow tie. And we do see Lobo come in as a teenaged character from Korugar Academy. He’s one of the antagonists they meet along the way. There was just something about him as vice principal that someone along the way didn’t like.”
All of this non-canonical work helps DC addresses a basic question: How do you get young readers to start reading comics? In the 1980s, comics began to be sold only through the direct market—primarily comics shops—and were no longer sold on newsstands. That affected the trajectory of comics since as it not only made it harder for young readers to be introduced to comics, but because the audience for comics was older, superhero comics were tailored to their interests. Even if young people could get to comics, there were fewer offerings available to them. Because of that, anecdotal evidence from stores says their average customer is a guy in his 30s.
On top of that, how do you get girls to read a medium that has made macho power fantasies its bread and butter? “Girls want to experience the strength, action and optimism of Super Heroes too, and DC Super Hero Girls is part of our long-term strategy to offer a diverse array of strong female characters in a fun and action-packed universe, and through a world of epic storytelling on a variety of entertainment platforms,” Diane Nelson, President of DC Entertainment and President and Chief Content Officer of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment said when the line launched in 2015. “We could not be more excited and proud to debut today’s first phase of the important new universe for girls.”
DC Super Hero Girls is just part of a DC initiative to get children and particularly girls introduced to its characters early. The company released a line of board books for toddlers including Super Heroes ABC 123 and My First Book of Girl Power, and learn-to-read books featuring DC heroes. The Tiny Titans comic is a humor title set in Sidekick Elementary School, and the Supergirl and Batgirl titles have a YA slant. Those efforts, along with the success of such acclaimed Marvel titles as Ms Marvel and Squirrel Girl, have led to an upswing in female readership. DC Super Hero Girls tries to reach young girls through comics, graphic novels, videos, animated features on Amazon, Lego DC Super Hero Girls animated shorts (not written by Fontana), action figures, Lego playsets, and themed apparel at Walmart. In the narrative platforms, Fontana writes with an eye for the medium at hand.
“There are tonal differences,” she says. “The shorts are a little more comedy-oriented. The movies are more action-packed. We wanted it to be just as serious about the action as you’d expect from a Batman or Superman series.” Because Fontana’s background is in animation, she had to learn how to write the comics and graphic novels. “The people at DC were really great about getting me a bunch of sample scripts to get me up to speed on how to read in the comic book format.”
Garbowska faces what seems like an unenviable artist’s task. How do you stamp your personality on your art when, like many animated properties, you’re working from a model that you have to adhere to? Companies have an investment in the characters looking the same across platforms. She has experience with the challenge since she has also drawn the comic book adaptation of My Little Pony and she knows what she brings to the table, whether others recognize it or not. She conforms to the models, but her eyes tend to be a little larger and a little more playful. “Even in the faces—I try to make them very welcoming,” she says. “Something scary? You want to make sure it’s not too scary. You want the essence that it’s a scary, bad guy character, but you want to make sure they turn the page and not close the book.
“It’s so hard to draw these properties and not smile while you’re drawing them. You’re hoping that the energy, the happiness you feel while drawing them translates to the page and makes them very enjoyable.”
She similarly adapts her visual storytelling to her audience. Extreme poses and dynamic page layouts are put aside in favor of clear, direct panels and pages that communicate effortlessly. When she got started in comics more than 11 years ago, she tried to give her pages a more mainstream look, but it wasn’t what she enjoyed. Working on children’s titles gave her occasions to go with layouts that make sense to her, but she still pays attention to young readers’ preferences.
“You don’t want 11 or 12 panels that might confuse a younger reader,” Garbowska says. “It’s not confusing because they’re not as intelligent as you; it’s that your brain works a little differently at that age. It likes more colors.” She’s aware that parents are often doing the actual reading or reading the comics as well, so she tries to make sure they’re not bored. “I like working clean. I think that’s what my style always has been. And I always think about ending that last panel with an expression or movement or something that makes people want to flip to the next page.”
Uniformity makes it easier for young fans to connect the characters from video to comic and back, and the same is true in the writing. Because Teen Titan Starfire already exists in animated form on Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans Go!, Fontana echoes that version’s speech, complete with her fragmented, alien understanding of English grammar and idioms. “It is a little bit in the comic books but not as pronounced,” Fontana says. To make identification across platforms easier to follow, the actors who voice Starfire, Beast Boy and Cyborg on Teen Titans Go!—Hynden Walsh, Greg Cipes, and Khary Payton—also voice the characters for DC Super Hero Girls.
Recently, Fontana got a chance to extend her appreciation of Wonder Woman from the DC Super Hero Girls into the adult version of the character when she took over the comic book for a story arc earlier this year. “To me, her main characteristics are always there,” she says. “Her driving force is justice, and I love that she has this Lasso of Truth because the only way you can know what justice is if is to know what the truth is. Having the opportunity to write the main ‘Rebirth’ title for her was exciting.”
Garbowska grew up on “X-Men and Archie,” she says, but her work continues to focus on the Archie half of that pairing by choice. “I like influencing younger readers because I was so into comics at a young age,” she says. “It’s really nice to give back and give something to the kids so that they can enjoy the comics and hopefully grow up with them like I did.”
Wizard World Comic Con starts Friday afternoon at the Morial Convention Center and runs through the weekend. The next DC Super Hero Girls graphic novel,
"Date with Disaster," will be on sale January 31.